Releasing players from the grip of the yips

Robert Karlsson has spoken about how he has dealt with ‘brain freeze’ as a golfer. He remarks, in Calvin and Bjørn’s book, ‘I started standing over the ball, taking decisions, instead of making them behind the ball. That’s how it started, being unclear. I’m not doing a good routine, the routine gets worse, one thing leads to another, and I’m wondering if I will ever play this game again. It’s a spiral.’ Within sport, and golf, in particular, there is much talk of the ‘yips’ in catastrophic terms and it is suggested as ending early the careers of many famous golfers. Perhaps unsurprising then when Karlsson is asked about the yips, he responds, ‘This was not the yips, because when you have the yips you can’t do anything about it. This was something that, unconsciously, was my own doing. It was cumulative.’ In many ways Karlsson is right when he states it is not the ‘yips’ as the term is hard to define. For example, early research in 2000 defined it as a ‘a psycho-neuromuscular impediment affecting the execution of fine motor skills during sporting performance’. This definition still stands – so it is useful to do a bit more unpacking of the term before we start labelling golfers, or others, with it. 

The evidence on how widespread the yips are varies – suggested as anywhere between 28-48% of golfers. Even at the lowest estimate this suggests a quarter of all golfers. We also know that the presence of the yips adds about 4.7 strokes to a round of golf. In terms of how it is expressed it is said to be a ‘twitch, freeze, or interruption during the execution of a stroke’. So it sounds like Karlsson’s brain freeze – but when we look closer the causes can vary quite a bit. For example, there is Type I yips that is basically a neurological issues of an uncontrolled muscle twitch, and a Type II yips which is psychological symptoms from performing under pressure. Now the cause of these psychological symptoms can vary. Anxiety seems to play a huge part, but we know anxiety is accumulative – that is to say, if you are feeling anxious about something in your home life, it may potentially increase the sense of anxiety on the golf course. Karlsson suggests the importance of this when he states, ‘and there were things outside of the golf course that were bothering me.’ There are other factors connected with anxiety though that we know also play its part, like a tendency for perfectionism, obsessive personality traits and intrusive thoughts. The term ‘yips’ can be a bit of an umbrella term therefore for many things in sport, and also it can carry stigma for those involved. As players, coaches and staff we need to be able to define what we are dealing with first.

With that said, what many players want to know is how to eradicate the yips if they experience them. Most of the interventions have looked to deal with the anxiety side of things that may feed the ‘yips’ – basically that anxiety drives attention inwards causing athletes to be ‘conscious’, or ‘coach’ themselves, over a dead ball rather than be automatic in their actions. In the short term distraction techniques that help ‘load’ up the brain and prevent it from thinking too much can be helpful. Similarly mindful based work can help for the player to remain present particularly during short game work. Some golfers too have also tried ‘sensory tricks’ to help create distraction like altering grips, length or putter and even the use of songs. For example, golfer Matthew Wolff, in 2020 at the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit after a round of 64 remarked, ‘I have to give credit to the ice cream truck. I just had that ice cream truck song going through my head all day today. It really helped me be unconscious.’ Wolff’s comment highlight the importance of what we pay attention to. Perhaps most importantly with the yips it is knowing that many golfers experience it’s hold, but there are ways psychology can help release them from its grip. 

Worth a read:

Bell, R. J., et al. (2011). “Solution-Focused Guided Imagery as an Intervention for Golfers with the Yips.” Journal of Imagery Research in Sport and Physical Activity 6(1).

Calvin, M. and T. Bjørn (2019). Mind Game: The Secret of Golf’s Winners. London, Yellow Jersey Press.

Clarke, P., et al. (2015). “The yips in sport: A systematic review.” International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology 8: 156-184.